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Is Washington losing Turkey?

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It seems that the relations between Washington and Ankara have only been poor in recent times.

There are a lot of unresolved issues and disputes, which intermittently cause crises, between the two countries.

The reason for the last negative turn of events was the arrest of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor who worked in Turkey’s Aegean region. In fact, the pastor was arrested in October 2016, as part of an investigation into the coup attempt that took place in July 2016. The Turkish authorities accuse the pastor of having links with the Gulen Movement, which was declared a terrorist organization in Turkey. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, has dedicated several tweets to Brunson, in which he expressed confidence in his innocence and called for his immediate release.

Some observers believe that the Turkish side would like to swap the pastor for the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who has been living for many years in exile in the US. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, commenting on the situation around Andrew Brunson, mentioned the Turkish preacher accused of orchestrating an attempted military coup in Turkey and lamented that the US refused to extradite him to Turkey.

In late July, Brunson was moved to house arrest, due to health problems.

Despite the request of the American side, Turkey refused to release the pastor eventually. Although there had been cases of detention of French and German citizens on similar charges, they were released after the intervention of their countries.Obviously, Trump, known for his impulsiveness, was not pleased with this approach of the Turkish authorities. He repeatedly threatened to impose sanctions. Perhaps even Trump imposing sanctions on Turkey expects to receive an apology from the Turkish leader, as in the case with Putin after the Turkish fighters shot down a Russian military plane that violated Turkish airspace. Finally, at the beginning of this month, the US Treasury Department adopted personal sanctions against the two Turkish ministers, it was an extraordinary measure, not every day the US imposes sanctions against members of the government of one of the NATO countries.

This was followed by a sharp increase in duties on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum, later, on August 10.

This step was a severe blow for the Turkish economy and the Turkish national currency which were far from their glory days. The Turkish lira went into free fall. The Turkish government is trying to stabilize the lira, but Erdogan’s public speeches are increasingly contributing to the depreciation of the lira.

Following these events, the Turkish police put in place additional security measures around the house of Andrew Brunson in Izmir.

Some people think it is justified that Erdogan uses this situation to rally the divided Turkish society around him. The Turkish society still has a memory of how the Western powers used Christian missionaries to interfere in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire. I do not think that the case of Andrew Brunson has any correlation with what happened in the times of the Ottoman Empire, but propaganda skillfully completes the missing parts of stories …

Immediately after the escalation of the crisis, President Erdogan published an article in the NYT.This shows that he realizes the importance of the US, American public opinion and is ready for dialogue. I would advise him to write his column in the NYT on a regular basis, so the American audience will have the opportunity to learn first-hand about Turkey’s position. It should also be noted that Erdogan’s government has a severe problem in building communications with the American political establishment. After Erdogan came to power, the few Turkish lobby groups that were in the US suspended their activities, Erdogan’s government was unable to build its lobbying activities in the US, unlike, for example, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel or even China. The lack of such activities widened the gap between Ankara and Washington.

As for the economy, it would be wrong to say that the US was responsible for all the economic problems in Turkey, as announced by the White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett live on MSNBC. Hassett said President Donald Trump’s decision to double tariffs on Turkish steel was “a tiny, tiny fraction” of Turkey’s gross domestic product, “so for the currency to drop 40 percent is a sign that there are a lot of economic fundamentals that are out of whack in that country.” He also added a remark on the political processes in Turkey and their impact on the economy. “When a country loses its connection to liberal democracy then you don’t really know what’s going to happen next to the economy and I think there is a lot of uncertainty,” Hassett said. The Turkish economy has been going through really tough times for the last 5-6 years. Large foreign investors are skeptical about Turkey’s investment opportunities; this is due to the following factors:

* Economic and political instability in the country.

* Strong outflow of capital and a drop in the purchasing power of citizens.

* Confrontation of the government with disagreeable businesspersons and use of courts for their prosecution and confiscation of assets.

* Complete loss of independence of Turkish courts and falling under the control of the executive power.

* Permanent Islamization of the country and a gradual moving away from the secular state.

For a long time, Erdogan’s government was on good terms with the Gulen Movement, the business empire controlled by this religious sect has grown considerably, members of the sect managed to infiltrate the courts and the prosecutor’s office. The Gulen Movement used these opportunities not only against Kemalist politicians and public figures but also against businesspersons whom they disapproved. When Erdogan started destroying the business empire of the Gulen Movement, this certainly could not but affect the Turkish economy.

Moreover, many wealthy people in Turkey have recently sold and are selling their property in the country and move to other countries, and these contribute to the outflow of capital from the country. Some local businessmen who are close to the authorities acquire these assets and attract foreign loans in dollars and euros for this, these transactions, along with the current debts of Turkish corporations, increase the pressure on the foreign exchange market. The growing Turkish foreign debt and its servicing become an expensive pleasure every year.

It is difficult to predict how this crisis will develop and whether it will lead to greater problems for both countries. Especially since the reins are held by impulsive leaders in both countries.

However, it is worth noting that the problems in the relations between the two countries should not be linked to Trump, he inherited these problems from the previous administration. Besides, as early as 2003, some serious disagreements emerged between Turkey and the US, when Turkey refused to participate in the Iraq campaign and refused to let US troops through its territory. In the short term, Turkey was able to show itself as an “independent player” in the long term, it was a blow to Turkey’s interests in Iraq, particularly, in Northern Iraq.

The parties have serious complaints against each other. I will try to touch upon these issues briefly.

Syria – PYD / YPG

Some politicians in Washington believe that only the US can have “national interests”, other countries cannot have any. This approach primarily harms the US itself and plays into the hands of Iran, Russia and, to some extent, China.

Turkey accuses US-backed Kurdish paramilitary groups PYD / YPG of being affiliated with PKK. The US spent vast amounts of money on training, preparing, arming and supporting the Kurdish armed groups in the north of Syria. Millions of dollars of American taxpayers were spent on supporting armed groups that fight the US ally in the region and are affiliated with the PKK terrorist organization that the US itself put on the terrorist list in 1997.It is worth noting that this process did not begin under the current administration but under the Obama administration. This can be considered as one of a series of mistakes by the Obama administration in the Middle East, which later led to an increase in the influence of Russia and Iran in this region.

The fact that Germany, which supported the Kurdish groups, was late and could not take part in the division of spheres of influence in the region is understandable, but the US is a world superpower and has an ally in the region closely linked to Washington in military terms. For the long-term interests of the US in the region, it is merely disadvantageous to exchange the NATO country with the second largest army after the US for the paramilitary Kurdish groups affiliated with terrorists.

Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 systems and problems with the F-35

Turkey as a broad enough country in a complex region continually needs to update and improve its air defense. Turkey’s attempt to buy Russian S-400 missile defense systems turned into a scandal. The US is unhappy that a NATO country is buying Russian weapons. However, this deal has an interesting background. Before considering the purchase of S-400 missile defense systems as an option, Turkey had long tried to buy similar weapons from NATO allies, but no one agreed to sell…As the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in his interview, Turkey had been trying to buy similar weapons from the US for almost ten years, but the US refused Turkey.

It is strange that another NATO member Greece has Russian weapons, particularly, the S-300 missile defense system. However, this does not cause a sharp discontent of NATO or the US. If the US believes that the purchase of S-400 missile defense systems is a problem, then Turkey is not to blame. The consistent disregard by Turkey’s allies for its need for such weapons pushed Turkey to look for an alternative.After the deal between Russia and Turkey was concluded, the US agreed to discuss the sale of Patriots to Turkey, but in exchange asked Ankara to cancel the S-400 deal. The Turkish side stated that they did not exclude the purchase of the Patriot defense systems, but they would not cancel the deal with Russia.

On August 13, the US President Donald Trump signed into law a defense policy bill that will hold up the transfer to Turkey of 100 F-35 fighter jets. Despite the fact that Turkey had paid for them. It seems that this step will further aggravate the crisis between the countries and will further push Turkey towards Russia and China.

Assistance to Iran in evading US sanctions

This, probably, is one of the most severe claims of Washington against Ankara. According to the American side, this is a whole chain of “backdoors” created by large Turkish banks in order to bypass the financial sanctions imposed on Iran.

The essence of the claim is that Turkish state banks took an active part in laundering Iranian money received from oil trade and sending cash and gold to Iran. The entire scheme was coordinated by an Iranian businessman of Azerbaijani descent, Reza Zarrab, who was married to a well-known Turkish singer.Zarrab is now appearing as a prosecution witness and claims that the current president of Turkey was aware of this scheme. This is quite a serious charge. Zarrab also claims that he paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to the Turkish minister and other high-ranking officials for their help. It is suggested that through the scheme organized by Zarrab a couple of Turkish banks passed 100 billion dollars from Iran. It is strange that there was a loophole in the sanctions system for a while and, although the Obama administration knew about it, they were reluctant to close this secret passage. The investigation into this case is still ongoing in the US. In May 2018, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager of “Halk Bank” who was involved in this scheme, was sentenced by an American court to 32 months of imprisonment.

This episode also exacerbates the relations between the US and Turkey as allies.

Refusal to purchase Iranian energy resources and new sanctions against Iran

After the US imposed new sanctions on Iran and asked the countries importing Iranian oil and gas to refuse these purchases, the Turkish authorities said they would not follow these sanctions and would not stop importing Iranian oil and gas. We were witnessing a repetition of the events of 2003 when Turkey refused to become a part of the coalition against Iraq. Now Ankara is stepping on the same rake. Defending Iran, Turkey deprives itself of the right to vote in the future, when the winners will share the “Iranian inheritance.” Iran has never been an ally or even a good neighbor of Turkey, Iranian propaganda has actively opposed Turkey, Iran has almost never helped Turkey to fight PKK terrorists, Iran and Turkey found themselves on opposite sides of the barricade in Syria. Now Turkey has a unique chance to use the issue of sanctions against Iran to solve problems with the US and to exert pressure on Iran to limit its destructive activity in the region.

In the coming months, we will learn how the Turkish-American relations will move forward. I would like to believe that both sides will have the wisdom and patience to step back a little and try to agree. So far, the actions of both sides have played into the hands of exclusively Iran and Russia, putting the stability of the whole region at risk.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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